Saturday, 18 June 2011

choosing to die

Another hugely patronising and arrogant article by Michael Wenham in the wake of Terry Pratchett's moving, fascinating Choosing To Die documentary. You can read the article here, and I highly recommend watching the documentary itself here. It's not an easy watch. In fact it's pretty harrowing. I spent large portions of it openly weeping. But it's also a massively humane programme, and a very important part of a debate which is really heating up. In fact, I'd say it should be required viewing for anybody who wishes to take part in the debate. Sir Terry, one of my favourite authors, is an excellent companion, making all the correct points, but never once being a cheerleader. He sees all the sides of the argument, unlike some of the arseholes who have had the temerity to attack him and the BBC for making this brave and non-sensational programme.

I could go through Wenham's article, as I have done previously when he talked a load of shit about Stephen Hawking, and variously rip it to bits in my anger, but I'm not going to bother. All I'm going to say is that I wish his friends well, and I am glad that they are coping well with their disabilities and living fulfilling lives, but there is no such thing as one size fits all. And, as one of the more agreeable Guardian commentators commented, "the plural of anecdote is not data". And I sympathise with anyone who counts Michael Wenham among their close friends. I can only imagine how self-righteous he must be in person. Harsh? Probably. Of course he has every right to express his opinions. Just as I have every right to express how much his opinions irritate me.

Anyway, the documentary is the important thing. Everyone has obviously been talking about the sequence in which we see Peter Smedley, an affable and amazingly calm man, travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland and take his own life, and it is very upsetting. And it should be. You're seeing a man die. But as far as deaths go, it's about as calm and dignified as many could hope for, particularly when you take into account the horrors that often await sufferers of motor neurone disease. Smedley chose to die quietly and painlessly, with his wife at his side, slipping away so gently that he seemed to have just fallen into a peaceful sleep. The whole thing is unbearably moving, but it was his choice to make. And it's a great shame that he had to choose to travel to an unfamiliar country and die in a building (which, admittedly, they'd made as nice as possible) on an industrial estate, rather than in the comfort of his own home.

I simply can't understand why people would object to a man opting for a dignified and painless end, rather than let himself succumb to the ravages of a cruel disease. I'm sure religion comes into it: God gave you life, and only God can take it away. Well, that's fine for you, if you believe that. But why the hell should we all suffer too? A person's life is their own. If they are of sound mind, and believe their time has come, and they simply do not think that the life that remains is one worth living, then why shouldn't they be allowed to quietly end it, hand-in-hand with the person they love?

Of course, the opposition will cynically try to use the people left behind as a reason why it shouldn't be allowed. I can't even begin to imagine how hard it must have been for Smedley's wife, or for the mother of Andrew, the multiple sclerosis sufferer who also chose to end his life (at the appalling, heartbreaking age of 42) at Dignitas. But Mrs Smedley and Andrew's mother both showed so much strength and were supportive until the end, because they knew that if there were any other route to take, Peter and Andrew would have taken it. Of course Peter didn't want to leave his wife alone. Of course Andrew didn't want to deprive his mother of a son. But they simply didn't want to carry on. And it was their choice, and their right as human beings, to end things the way they saw fit.

I think one of the most telling parts of the programme was Mick, the taxi driver who also had motor neurone disease, but after considering Dignitas, had opted to live out the rest of his days at a hospice. He said he was absolutely in favour of assisted suicide, but that it wasn't for him. His choice.

His choice.


How many times must it be said? His choice. Her choice. Not the choice of holier-than-thou bishops, or reactionary cultural commentators, or anybody else.

We need to have this debate. I'm not saying everybody should be allowed to kill themselves willy-nilly, which is what some people seem to think Sir Terry is advocating. It's not. These people are not pro-death. They are pro-choice. And although people like Mr Wenham, who seems to think that the personal choice of the sufferers to die is not as important as his own personal choice that they keep a stiff upper lip and carry on, will try to use this as a stick with which to beat anybody who supports the idea of assisted dying, we should shrug it off. Life is a precious thing. The most precious, miraculous (in an entirely non-Biblical sense) thing. But I for one know that if I were to get to the stage where I was in more pain than I could stand, I would like to know that I had the choice, and that anybody who chose to help me would not be penalised legally or otherwise.

I'm not saying I would choose to die. Of course I have no idea. Sir Terry has been dealing with Alzheimer's, and he still doesn't know.

But the choice should be there.

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